The Whisky Tasting Club

The elephants in the room…

Or indeed, the issues that dare not speak their name

Are people getting a little bit fed up with the heavy-handed tactics of the Scotch Whisky Association? And is it the case that confidence is growing and a rapidly growing force is prepared to stand up to the Association on an ongoing basis?

I ask because when I wrote a pro-SWA feature for Whisky Magazine some years back I was amazed at the venom that was thrown at the SWA, and indeed me, for writing favourably about in. I got more negative response to that one feature than for all the features I’d done in the previous five years added together. And since then I’ve seen a small trickle of criticism turn in to a regular flow of negative comment.

More than that, there seems to be a growing number of interested parties willing to challenge the boundaries of the existing rules and to work within the law but probe for new areas of innovation.

The SWA is basically a force for good. It plays a crucial, indeed essential role, in protecting Scotch whisky and all that it stands for. It helps Scotch find routes to new markets, to establish a level playing field for its members in those markets, and it protects Scotch from erosion of standards or ‘passing off’ by poor imitators.

But let’s be honest, its job is to protect SCOTCH and that may mean doing so to the detriment of whiskies from other parts of the world; whiskies which have every right to trade and compete for the whisky drinker’s share of throat. And it could be – and has been – said that it has bullied and threatened to do so.

The traditional world of whisky has always, rightly, been dominated by Scotch. Its 100 plus distilleries dwarfed the other whisky makers of Japan, Ireland, Canada, and Kentucky, who broadly accepted its definitions of what whisky was. But what happens when the ‘old world’ of 150 distilleries has to stand up to a growing number of whisky distilleries worldwide which now easily exceeds 750 whisky distilleries and is growing? What happens when 400 plus American distilleries start accusing Europe of imposing unfair trading barriers on its distillers? Or Europe starts making whisky in casks that are not oak, as they may, or mix whiskies from different countries with Scotch, as they do?

It’s happening and any journalist worth his or her salt should be asking what it all means, questioning what is and isn’t – and should and shouldn’t – be allowed, and investigating what the reasons for the existing rules are and whether they do what they set out to do.

No real journalist should accept the status quo and leave rules and regulations unchallenged. If they don’t make sense, or aren’t fair, or lead to inequity or unfairness, then it’s a journalist’s duty to objectively, rationally and fairly, to say so.

That’s why I welcomed Jim Murray’s excellent ‘Bible Thumping’ piece in the recently-published Whisky Bible. Not because I agreed with it – I don’t entirely and have fundamental differences of opinions with him on several bits of it. But because he’s asking difficult questions and raising some serious issues and concerns.

I don’t see anyone anywhere else doing this – and specially not among the sycophantic bloggers who set themselves up as whisky experts, line up for free samples and then obligingly write unquestioning marketing notes for whoever pops a freebie in the post.

I’ve been over this ground any number of times and don’t want to go over it again here. But I do want to write a series of blogs which recognise the herd of elephants that are in the room.

I want to ask what exactly you can and can’t do by law, question what the purpose is of the three year rule governing what can be called whisky in Europe, and explore where the new distillers might be taking us with different cask types, grains, peats and production techniques.

Whether we call it innovation or progress, we should welcome it. And if we find anyone who stops it for any self interest, we should fight against them.

This isn’t to challenge all that is good about Scotch whisky, it’s to enhance it. Find whisky at all and you’ll eventually find Scotch, and long may that continue to be the case. But we should encourage debate and exploration. Just don’t shoot the messenger.

So let’s start gently, with a chat to former Cooley director Jack Teeling about his new whiskey company and his launch whiskey, Hybrid.

When I first wrote about Hybrid, a mix of Scottish single malt and Irish single malt, it provoked a flurry of comment and response on Twitter. Many of the posts suggested the new whiskey fell outside Scotch Whisky Association rules, some pointed to the fuss caused by the SWA the last times such whiskies were tried (Celtic Nations from Bruichladdich, which you can still buy, and Dave Mark & Robbo’s The Smooth Sweeter One from 2002) – and most seemed to be totally unaware of, and surprised by, the fact that Spanish blended whisky DYC contains Laphroaig and Ardmore, and some Japanese blends contain Scotch from the Scottish distilleries owned by Suntory and Nikka.

So there’s not anything earth-shatteringly new about the idea of mixing whiskies from different countries. What makes Hybrid different is the fact that Jack Teeling and former Cooley whiskey innovator Alex Chasko are laying claim to inventing a new whiskey category. If there should be any question mark how life is for former Cooley director Jack Teeling these days, try and track him down for a chat about his new business. He’s currently on the West Coast of America but his feet have hardly touched the ground in recent days and catching up with him has been a nightmare.

When we do speak he is totally apologetic but excited about his new brand. “It’s been a bit slower coming out than I would have liked,” he says. “I left Beam in April and had some family time before doing this. I didn’t leave because of anything directly with the new company but I knew as far back as last December that if the takeover happened it wouldn’t be for me.

“I didn’t want to be a small fish in a big pond. I like to have control of my own destiny and Beam know what they wanted to do with Cooley so I could see possibilities to do other things.”

Effectively Teeling was more interested in the innovation and exploration of new and exciting areas than he was the international distribution of some key core brands.

If he were in a rock band, I suggest, he left because of musical differences – he didn’t want to be part of a band following the commercial route in to the charts.

“I suppose that’s true, and I took Alex on board for that reason. It’s looking for new ideas and flavours to excite and interest the whiskey drinker that is what interests us. But this has been a big change for us, going from a company with 100 people to one with just two.”

Hybrid is a statement of intent. It’s a combination of Cooley single malt and 10 year old single malt whisky from Bruichladdich which has been married together in oak barrels for eight years. It is bottled at a modest cask strength of 44.1% ABV with no chill filtration or colouring added. Edition No.1 will be limited to just 1,200 70cl bottles.

So is Teeling worried about the potential political reaction it will receive? “We are just a tiny little company so hopefully the SWA won’t have an issue with us,” he says. “We make no claim about what we are, whether we’re Scottish or Irish or anything else. We have effectively come up with a new category that we call Hybrid. The idea is to fuse different styles and flavours to give the connoisseur a different drinking experience.”

One thing we can be sure of: this is just a beginning and all sorts of weird and wonderful whiskeys from an exciting innovative duo, and we should welcome their return to the fray. But will they be able to find the stock, I ask?

“I managed to secure a limited supply agreement when I left Beam,” says Teeling. “Not a lot but enough to stay in the game. And I’m looking in all directions and leaving no stone unturned to find more. I’ve managed to find some. The plan is to keep looking for new directions to take our whiskeys in.” Watch this space.

Tasting notes:

Nose: West Scotland is in charge here. This is a distinctly Islay nose, with savoury and sea notes, some damp Autumn, oily boat yard and peat. Quite restrained though, and after breathing and with a drop of water, some sour apple and a hint of lime make an appearance.

Palate: Intriguing mix this – the whisky styles sit together nicely, with lemon and peat from the Scotch, some apple, pear, marzipan/apple pip form Ireland, and an oil, pepper and some peppermint/menthol backbone which could come from either side and which we’ll credit to the hybrid mix. It’s not a particularly thick or rich whisky but very drinkable.

Finish: Soft, balanced and pleasant, with the citrus, peat, and honeyed fruit in balance.

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  • For me the key is honesty – if you’re making a Scotch and Irish hybrid all power to you so long as you’re not claiming it to be something it’s not. Its great that he’s happy for people to know he’s pre-arranged a supply from his previous employers. Same goes for bloggers singing the praises of free whisky so that they get free whisky; it’s another question of honesty!

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